IE 8: A digression: Downton Abbey and the entail/Downton Abbey und der Fideikommiss

In late 2010, the series Downton Abbey, set between 1912 and 1914, was very popular, and when I eventually saw it I enjoyed it a lot. It’s like Gosford Park, which had the same director, but easier to understand. For instance, in Gosford Park I knew who the murderer was, but I had to see the film three times before I knew why various people were under suspicion, or who was married to whom. In Downton Abbey, everything is clear.

I am excited to see if it’s dubbed into German, but at all events it’s been edited a bit for the USA. Some changes were made: about 2 hours of adverts were cut, and then some minor changes were made to divide it into a logical number of parts with appropriate beginnings and endings. But the Daily Mail had a silly article in which it claimed that the series had to be radically simplified so that Americans could understand it.

For in the land of the notoriously short attention span, TV executives have taken a knife to the artfully crafted series, slashing its running time and simplifying the plotline for fear viewers will be left baffled. …

The show’s ten million British viewers will be well aware that much of the drama revolves around challenges to the ‘entail’ – the legal device which determines how the estate should be divided up – after Lord Grantham’s heirs perish on the Titanic.
But Ms Eaton said: ‘We thought there might be too many references to the entail and they have been cut. It is not a concept people in the US are very familiar with.’
However, that did not seem to faze British viewers, who would have been similarly unaware of the term before watching the series.
PBS also believes its audiences will need an American to outline the key themes of the show.
So before the first episode, actress Laura Linney will explain the inheritance principle.

One wonders how the Americans have understood all the Jane Austen films if they don’t understand an entail.

Tabloid Watch (the UK equivalent of BILDBlog) put it right. It quotes Jace Lacob, who was interviewed by the Daily Mail reporter and ignored – he actually explained that the two-hour cut was removal of advertising, but this information was not used.

Anyway, what is an entail? (emphasis on the first syllable) I found some explanations for Downton Abbey online, and two referred to primogeniture as a definition. Actually, primogeniture is really something else. There are societies where by law or custom it is normal for the eldest son to inherit the estate. But an entail is usually created by will, not by law, and provides that the eldest son and his heirs inherit, binding the property (land and buildings are the main thing) for generations.

One aim of both primogeniture and the entail is to keep land from being split up into ever smaller bits. The person currently holding the land was a tenant for life and as long as the entail existed, he (it was normally a man, by the terms of the entail) could not leave the estate by will. He was subject to laws requiring the property to be looked after, although this presupposed being able to afford it (e.g. making forests sustainable – the estate might be very large).

Estates like entails existed in England from about 1200 on, and protected from 1285. The oldest version was called a fee tail, which means literally ‘a restricted interest’ (Latin: feodum talliatum). ‘Entail’ has the same origin. Various kinds of wording created an entail – I won’t go into that now – and there were various methods of barring the entail (putting an end to it), which did not always work.

Since 1925, entails can only exist as trusts, and they can be barred. But Downton Abbey is set in the years before the First World War, so to see how possible it might have been to bar the entail, one has to consider the Fines and Recoveries Act 1833. It looks to me as if the life tenant, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, could have barred the entail, but in fact he decided not to, because he did not want the estate to be broken up. My old copy of Cheshire’s Modern (sic) Law of Real Property says:

Disentailing Assurance: A tenant in tail in possession and of full age may, without the concurrence of any other person, effectually bar the entailed interest and thereby enlarge it into a legal fee simple by adopting any form of conveyance which is sufficient to dispose of a fee simple estate in land, provided, however, that in the case of an inter vivos disentailment the conveyance is effected by deed.

And since 1996, it has been impossible to create an entail, even as a trust. If you write in your will that you leave the estate to your ‘heirs of the body male’, the wording that used to create an entail, it will all pass absolutely to the first ‘heir’ (actually, the word ‘heir’ is not used in England law any longer, but this is the old wording). Some entails still exist but will die out. They even exist in some U.S. states.

Here is what Dietl-Lorenz has on the term:

entail (Vererbung als od. Umwandlung in ein) Erbgut (estate in [fee] tail); festgelegte Erbfolge für Grundbesitz
18[1]to bar (or cut off) the entail die Erbfolge aufheben (durch disentailing deed)
18[1]entail v in ein Erbgut umwandeln; als Erbgut vererben; die Erbfolge (für ein Gut) bestimmen; …
18[1]entailed erbrechtlich beschränkt
18[1]entailed estate (erbrechtlich gebundenes) Erb-, Familiengut (vergleichbar dem früheren deutschen Fideikommiß)
18[1]entailed interest Br (equity-Recht) beschränktes Eigentumsrecht
18[1]entailment (Vererbung als od. Umwandlung in ein) Erbgut

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